Why Trump Has Already Won

The GOP front-runner has highlighted issues that would have been ignored.

After the South Carolina Republican primary, it’s nearly impossible to avoid a fundamental conclusion about this election cycle: Donald Trump is a political phenom. That he would emerge as such was nearly impossible to believe a few months ago, given his often uncouth bombast, his raw pugilism and his seeming lack of any capacity to master the intricacies of public policy. And yet here he stands, the single most significant figure of this campaign season, the man who has exercised greater impact upon the current political drama than anyone else from either party.

In the wake of his 11-percentage-point victory in South Carolina, he becomes the man of the hour in the Republican race. His hour may fade, as so many have predicted for so long. But, even if it does, he has altered the country’s political landscape in ways that aren’t going to be reversed anytime soon. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that he will be formidable in what now has emerged as a three-man race pitting himself against senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

While either of these figures could end up winning the GOP nomination, it has to be conceded now that Trump is the front-runner, the man whose electoral performance thus far suggests the greatest prospect to cadge the lion’s share of victories in the crucial Super Tuesday cluster of primaries on March 1—and to go on from there to score heavily in the delegate-rich, winner-take-all contests that will commence in mid-March. It may not happen that way, but prospects are substantial that it will.

To understand this political phenom, perhaps we should look at three elements of the man—his persona, his issues and message and his seemingly instinctual ability to capture simmering angers, frustrations and fears within substantial segments of the electorate.

The persona is altogether rare—and certainly not one that would generate this kind of political support in normal or tranquil times. He projects himself as a big, brash, bold braggart of a man who bulls his way to whatever objective he sets for himself. He speaks off the cuff, operating by instinct and without regard for the reactions of polite society, which he seems to equate with the despised establishment that is ruining America. His attack on Political Correctness is part of that. His followers love it and respond to the apparent enjoyment he derives from the fray. He seems serene in his pugnacity.

In his South Carolina victory speech he demonstrated his ability to speak in stirring, unrehearsed language that captures both the man and his mission. In congratulating his opponents, he stirred a smattering of booing and promptly sought to quell the sentiment. “There’s nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s nasty. It’s mean. It’s vicious. [pause] It’s beautiful.” Thus did he generate laughter while capturing the political game in all of its blood-sport reality but also its fundamental civic profundity. Then he seamlessly segued into his basic message. “When you win, it’s beautiful,” said Trump. “And we’re going to start winning for our country.”

This is no ordinary political rhetoric.

Ezra Klein, writing in Vox, suggests that Trump operates without shame—he simply doesn’t care what anyone thinks of what he says or does—and this raises questions about what would restrain him in the exercise of great power. A valid point, and a disturbing one. But his supporters don’t care. They’re too frustrated and angry. According to South Carolina exit polls, fully 92 percent of primary voters said they are angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. And 53 percent said they feel ``betrayed’’ by their party (in New Hampshire the number expressing this sentiment was 47 percent).

These are remarkable numbers, demonstrating a significant proportion of the electorate these days is wallowing in political alienation. This is not a sustainable political situation, which explains in part the emergence of Donald Trump—and the brief, halting campaign of Jeb Bush, who put his presidential run out of its misery following Saturday’s South Carolina vote. Bush couldn’t speak to political alienation because it’s alien to him. He’s a thoroughly status quo politician when the status quo is generating that anger and sense of betrayal picked up in Saturday’s exit polls. His view of a crackerjack campaign was to put together a pastiche of creative tinkering, five-point programs and finely crafted political compromises designed to fuzz up political distinctions on the wedge issues of our time.

It wouldn’t wash. Republicans aren’t interested in fuzzing up today’s wedge issues because they see these issues as being wrapped up with the future and identity of their nation. They want these issues resolved, one way or another, and they want a champion who will speak up forcefully on their behalf.

Which brings us to Trump’s issues and message. It begins with his assault on political correctness, which has become a bludgeon in the hands of some liberals who prefer to intimidate opposition speech rather than rebutting it. Trump blasts his way through that by, first, declaring himself an anti-PC warrior, then employing his blunt language to assault the sensibilities of those seeking to control political discourse through the PC weapon. Until Trump stood up to the PC crowd, nobody knew just how much anger and frustration this phenomenon was generating.

Having cleared the decks with his PC assault, Trump promptly introduced issues into GOP discourse that would never have been joined in any effective way but for him. Examples:

 

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